Athens Review, Athens, Texas

May 10, 2013

JEFF RIGGS: Boy, have newspapers really changed over the years!

Jeff Riggs
The Athens Review

ATHENS — How newspapers have changed! And, much of it has to do with modernization through computers.

I remember when I took my first paper job with the Houston Chronicle in 1968. I was a copyboy in the editorial department on the third floor of a 10-story downtown building. There were windows all around on that floor  — I thought at the time it was so you could see if anything was happening.

Of course, all the buildings in downtown Houston had observation windows, so it couldn’t be that. But, as a journalism student at the age of 19, it was fun to believe that it might be for that purpose.

I remember there were several reporters with IBM Selectric typewriters at their desks. Since the electric typewriters were fairly new to the market, there were the old Underwood non-electric classic typewriters still available for those who had not progressed to electrical writing.

When stories were typed and complete, the typewriter paper they were written on was given to an editor, who looked it over for AP style and any other problem that might appear. Then it was given to a set of three assistant editors who would give it the final look, each consulting with the others and making pencil marks for changes.

Then the typewriter paper was sent up an airtube which would send the rolled paper to a department on the third floor called Composition. Later the editor would stroll downstairs to look at plates that would soon go onto presses. He would give the final check.

Then, in the not-too-distant-future, computers were on both editors’ and reporters’ desks. It was in 1980 when I was working at the Deer Park Broadcaster/-Progress that I was using an IBM Selectric. The publisher came over to my desk carrying an Apple computer with a screen about eight inches wide by six inches deep. He told me to put the Selectric in the back room and that I should read the instruction book to the new Apple now on my desk.

Not only could you write your stories and proof stories on the screen of the Apple, you could also lay out pages on that screen.

Of course, what was laid out on the screen would have to be printed out as quarter pages (four assembled was the actual size of what the reader held in their hands), so that hot wax could be rolled onto their backs and physically laid out.  

A representative from the pressroom in some faraway town would drive to the newspaper office and get the waxed pages that had been assembled from the printed quarter pages so that they could be physically transported to the pressroom. A photo was then taken of the waxed page and a negative was made of that so that the final plate could be put on the press.

It was the computer age. That allowed for more duties to be undertaken by each person in the editorial department, and fewer employees. You no longer needed Composition or Layout and one editor could edit on the screen, do a spellcheck and lay out the pages using one program.

Today, we can pair the pages using another program and get them ready for printing from our desks.

So what was the result of computerization of newspaper labors? First, there were fewer employees to pay in order to get the job done. There was also more control over the product by newspaper editors and publishers and duties could be done much faster than ever before. Since there were fewer employees to do the same work, there was also less need for more floorspace in newspaper offices.

Some people would never say, “Thank God for computers.”  But, some would have to admit that in some cases, they have changed our lives for the better.

Jeff Riggs is associate editor of the Athens Daily Review.